Main Engine Cut Off

NASA Wins MECO’s 2020 Good Decision of the Year Award by Bringing Back the Worm

SpaceX DM-2 Booster with NASA Worm

The worm is back. And just in time to mark the return of human spaceflight on American rockets from American soil.

The retro, modern design of the agency’s logo will help capture the excitement of a new, modern era of human spaceflight on the side of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle that will ferry astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the Demo-2 flight, now scheduled for mid- to late May.

This makes me so happy. I absolutely adore the NASA worm and it looks so damn good on SpaceX hardware. I wish it were the main logo for the agency, but:

And there’s a good chance you’ll see the logo featured in other official ways on this mission and in the future. The agency is still assessing how and where it will be used, exactly.

And don’t worry, the meatball will remain NASA’s primary symbol.


At the end of the post, NASA links to the original Graphics Standards Manual for the worm. I have a hardback print and it’s one of my favorite books to flip through.

Episode T+152: SpaceX’s Dragon XL Wins Gateway Logistics Services Contract

NASA selected SpaceX and their new Dragon XL vehicle as the first Gateway Logistics Services provider. I take some time to think through why SpaceX is interested in this program, what they might want to get out of it, and what we could see Dragon XL doing in the future.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 38 executive producers—Brandon, Matthew, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and six anonymous—and 352 other supporters.


The Show

Virgin Orbit Designs Automatic Ambulatory Bag Pump

Virgin Orbit has developed a new mass-producible bridge ventilator to help in the fight against the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The Virgin Orbit team has been consulting with the Bridge Ventilator Consortium (BVC), led by the University of California Irvine (UCI) and the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), a group formed to spawn and nurture efforts to build producible, simple ventilators to aid in the current COVID-19 crisis. Pending clearance by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Virgin Orbit aims to commence production at its Long Beach manufacturing facility in early April, sprinting to deliver units into the hands of first responders and healthcare professionals as soon as possible.

Really nice work by Virgin Orbit. Make sure to watch the video that demonstrates what they’ve designed. If they mentioned this last week when touting that they were staying open through the pandemic, I might have been less cranky.

However, it’s an odd time for Virgin Orbit to take this on. They are in for a tough stretch in terms of funding, with the parent organization dropping their funding levels due to their underperformance on LauncherOne thus far and, obviously, the pandemic, since no one can announce bad news without blaming it on that. Though for Virgin, that’s totally valid, as a massive amount of their revenue comes from industries hit the hardest—travel and hotels.

Word is that Virgin Orbit is even looking for funding from the government to get them through their test campaign. Here’s hoping that they’ve worked out their technical issues in the run up to the first launch and they really are close.

OneWeb Can’t Raise Money, Blames the Pandemic, Files for Bankruptcy

The week of terrible space news continues. Caleb Henry, for SpaceNews:

Satellite internet startup OneWeb filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Friday after its largest investor, Softbank, rejected a request for additional funding.

OneWeb, in its March 27 news release, blamed the coronavirus pandemic for its inability to raise the money it needed to avoid bankruptcy.

I’m still sick of blaming the pandemic for issues that have been simmering on the horizon for a while now.

Where OneWeb goes from here is going to be a hell of a story. By some estimates, they need at least $4 billion to finish off their constellation.

There are some big money companies out there who have that sort of cash under their mattresses and have been working on constellations (Amazon’s Project Kuiper) or have been rumored to be interested in such a thing (Apple). In the case of Amazon, they’re still in need of spectrum, so this could be an easy pickup.

There are some out there who see SpaceX in serious need of funding, too, in excess of what they’ve been raising already. What Musk said a few weeks back during a nearly unwatchable interview at Satellite 2020 sounds even more prescient now: he just wants SpaceX to be in the “not bankrupt” category.

The way Caleb finishes off his article is worth remembering:

Iridium, Globalstar, Orbcomm and Teledesic all went bankrupt about two decades ago, though only Teledesic failed to emerge from bankruptcy and deploy a second-generation constellation.

Bigelow Lays Off All Employees

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

According to sources familiar with the company’s activities, Bigelow Aerospace’s 68 employees were informed that they were being laid off, effective immediately. An additional 20 employees were laid off the previous week.

Those sources said that the company, based in North Las Vegas, Nevada, was halting operations because of what one person described as a “perfect storm of problems” that included the coronavirus pandemic. On March 20, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed an emergency directive ordering all “nonessential” businesses to close.

Bummer for everyone there, but for years it has been known that Bigelow was a hot mess internally. So much potential in what they could have done if they had the right mix of leadership and vision and drive.

Also, I hate this whole “in part because of the pandemic” thing going on. Does anyone truly believe that ExoMars 2020 was delayed and that Bigelow laid off everyone because of a pandemic? Sure, it makes things harder. But the writing was on the wall for both of these programs.

Astra Loses First Rocket 3.0

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

In an email late March 23, Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra, said the rocket had been damaged in prelaunch testing earlier in the day. “We’ll be rescheduling launch,” he said, but had not selected a new launch date. He did not elaborate on the damage the rocket sustained.

Local radio station KMXT reported March 23 that there had been an “anomaly” at the launch site on Kodiak Island that prompted an emergency response. There were no injuries reported, but the area was cordoned off.

Bummer to hear that they’ve lost the vehicle as well as some equipment on the ground. Good thing they have 2 more following closely in the pipeline:

The company called this particular vehicle “1 of 3” as it was the first of three similar vehicles in production. In an interview in February, Kemp said the second vehicle was 90% complete and the third 40% complete.

Episode T+151: Northrop Grumman, Satellite Servicing, and DARPA’s RSGS

After a tumultuous past few years, DARPA has selected a new partner for RSGS. It is none other than Northrop Grumman, who has found early success with their satellite servicing ventures.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 38 executive producers—Brandon, Matthew, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and six anonymous—and 349 other supporters.


The Show

From Dragon to Cygnus to an Android Phone

Loren Grush, for The Verge:

To test out this technology, Lynk launched its third test payload to the International Space Station in December aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Astronauts on board the ISS then attached the payload to a Cygnus cargo spacecraft on the outside of the station. The Cygnus detached from the ISS on January 31st and has lingered in orbit ever since, allowing the Lynk team to test out their technology. And on February 24th, Lynk sent its first text with the payload, a message that read “This is a test” (though the first three letters were actually cut off in the message for some reason). It was received by an Android phone located on the Falkland Islands while the Cygnus capsule passed overhead.

Cool read on a very cool development.

I’m Not Just Picking on Virgin Orbit

If it wasn’t clear in my post yesterday, I’m annoyed at California’s overly-broad definition of aerospace manufacturers that allows Virgin Orbit to keep its facilities open in any capacity.

I don’t think Astra should be prepping its next launch attempt this week.

The amount of people I could hear in the background of SpaceX’s Starlink webcast 4 days ago made me uncomfortable.

I’m skeptical that the three NRO payloads Rocket Lab is launching next week are of such a high priority, but New Zealand can do whatever they want to do.

Again, I’d be more than willing to make exceptions for launch campaigns like Perseverance, Commercial Crew, and other high priority, time-sensitive things.

But even NASA has stopped most if not all work on SLS and James Web Space Telescope. Those should be huge indicators of the right call here.

I think we should have stopped domestic air travel in the US a week ago.

Stay home. Don’t see other people. Work remotely if you can, and help people around you who aren’t so lucky.

At a certain point, we can collectively make the shutdown suck for 2–3 weeks, or we can half-ass it and let it linger for 2–3 months or longer.